24 December 2010
Even though most Byzantine and Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas Eve on Jan. 6 and Christmas Day on Jan. 7, one thing is universal -- velija (veh-LEE-yah), literally "vigil" and meaning Slavic Christmas Eve Holy Supper.
Velija is a 12-dish (the number of dishes symbolizes the apostles) meatless feast whose preparations begin early on Christmas Eve. It is a solemn meal that brings the family together, sometimes from hundreds of miles away.
The Velija Table Is Prepared
Hay or straw is placed under the tablecloth or under the table -- or both -- symbolizing Christ's humble birth in a manger. A fine white tablecloth is placed over the straw representing the Babe's swaddling clothes. An extra place is always set to receive a traveling stranger who might be the Christ Child in disguise and to honor a deceased loved one.
Dinner doesn't begin until the first star of the evening is sighted, a job given to the young children of the household to keep them occupied while dinner is prepared.
Prayers and blessings are followed by breaking and eating the oplatky, a Communion-like wafer stamped with a nativity scene, spread with honey to symbolize the unleavened bread of the Passover supper. The husband breaks oplatky with his wife with good wishes and a kiss, and so it goes down the line of children from oldest to youngest. The head of the household dips his thumb in honey and makes the sign of the cross on everyone's forehead as a reminder to keep Christ foremost in their lives.
Coming from the Latin word oblata (offering), oplatky are common to both Slovaks and Poles (who call them oplatki), who are separated only by the natural boundary of the Tatra Mountains. Some say the custom started when snowbound villagers couldn't make it to midnight Mass on Christmas. The parish priest gave them blessed wafers weeks in advance so they could still partake in the Eucharist.
Each family contributed a share of flour to make the oplatky for the entire village on Dec. 13, the day after St. Lucy Day. After baking, the priest blessed the oplatky and children distributed them to each family with memorized Christmas greetings or Vins.
The Feast Begins
Once the oplatky have been shared, the meal begins with a toast of, usually, homemade red wine, followed by some type of tart soup (continuing the exodus theme of recalling the bitterness of slavery) -- machanka (sour mushroom), potato, or maybe pea soup with barley.
Next come freshwater fish, usually floured and quickly fried. Carp, trout and white fish are common. Bandurky (potatoes), bobalki (baked dough balls) with honey and poppyseeds or sauerkraut and onion, holubky (cabbage rolls) stuffed with mushrooms and rice, pagach, sometimes known as "Slovak pizza," which is thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes, and pirohy dumplings filled with sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, prune lekvar, or cheese. Some families like loksa, a potato pancake type of dish.
Dessert is usually kolaci, strudels filled with walnuts, poppyseed, prune butter or cheese, apples and nuts. It is believed the order in which the courses are served signifies the sweetness, sourness, and sweetness, again, of life -- honey on the oplatky, sour soup, sweet pastries.
After the Meal
When the meal is finished the kolady or carols are sung. Sometimes there is a visit from the jaslickari or Star Carolers -- young men and boys dressed as the Three Kings or shepherds and an angel carrying a star on a pole. One member of the group carries a creche and, in song, tells the story of the nativity. Then, if they aren't snowbound, families bundle up and head off to midnight Mass.
Some families throw walnuts into the corners of every room to ensure good luck for the coming year. Others break them open to foretell the future. The four quarters of the walnut represent a quarter of the year. If one or more sections is healthy, then the coming year will be a good one. If one or more sections is black and shriveled, watch out!
No one is allowed to leave the table until the meal is finished. To do so would result in bad luck (or death) in the year to come. A lighted candle is on the vilija table during the entire meal. In some families, at the end of the supper, the candle is blown out by the eldest person. If the smoke goes up, the person's luck will be good. If it goes down, bad luck and, possibly, death await. The candle is then relighted and passed to the next eldest person until everyone has his chance. A final prayer is said by the head of the household and then it is deemed safe to leave the table.
Poppyseeds are eaten with abandon because they're considered lucky, recalling the pagan tradition of scattering poppyseeds at the doorway so an evil spirit intent on entering would be so preoccupied with picking up each tiny seed, it wouldn't enter the house.
A Very Unusual Tradition
>In some areas of Slovakia and Ukraine, the head of the household takes a spoonful of bobalki, loksa or kutia (a dish of boiled wheat mixed with honey, raisins and nuts) and throws it up on the ceiling. The more that sticks, the bigger the crops will be in the coming year!
Among the ornaments Slovaks hand on their Christmas trees are embossed wax eggs, known variously as kraslice, pysanky, kraseny jajcja, pysanka, pysane jajce, and farbanka. This art originated in Northeastern Slovakia and Southeastern Poland. Designs -- geometric patterns, caricatures, scenery, angels and religious symbols -- are drawn on natural-colored or dyed hollow eggshells with a kiska or metal pin and colored wax. Sometimes the eggs are painted with oils or acrylic paints with the embossed wax reserved for trimwork. They are displayed in special holders during the other seasons of the year.